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Jan. 25 – COMMENTARY: Parking Plan's impact on Workers? Full SaMMI Board Needs to Meet and Weigh in

By Lou Phelps, Publisher, Savannah Business Journal

January 25, 2018 – You see the ‘DOT’ free shuttles (pictured below) operating along the streets of Savannah’s Historic District, but you may not realize how that system is funded. 

And, in light of the City of Savannah’s new parking plans that went into effect a few weeks ago - which reduced available spaces on certain blocks, extended hours when meters had to be fed, and increased per hour rates - new issues have arisen where the workers at the hotels, restaurants and bars that both locals and tourists frequent can’t find places to park.

Further, they state they can’t afford to park where they’ve always been parking, or are having to walk many blocks at 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. to get to their car in a distant city parking garage that offers more reasonable rates.

Critics believe the City rolled out its new 'Parking Matters' plan without taking into consideration this part of the impact of the new parking strategy, overseen by Sean Brandon.

The free DOT bus shuttle service is funded by money generated by, and overseen by, Savannah Area Mobility Inc., known as “SaMMI” to those in the tourism industry.  It is a 501(c)6 non-profit organization that receives just over $1.4 million a year from a $1.00 “per occupied room” fee, called a ‘POR.’

Founded in 2006, the purpose of SaMMI is to implement and oversee Savannah’s Visitor Mobility Plan for an integrated mobility system, run by an eleven member board of directors that is made up of representatives of hospitality, tourism and municipal interests. 

By contract, the City of Savannah’s Revenue Dept. collects the money from all the hotels, distributes it to SaMMI, and that board then has responsibility for distributing the funds or signing contracts for transportation services. 

One problem is, the board hasn’t met since April 2016.

And, a new issue has arisen because City Manager Rob Hernandez notified the current chair of the Board, Jodi McIntyre, that he did not intend to renew the contract that ended Dec. 31. 2017, whereby the City agreed to collect the money and remit it to SaMMI.  

The problem is:  the $1.00 is a fee that the hotels agreed to charge themselves, back 12 years ago, in order to meet a need that city or county transportation planners were not addressing:  moving those attending conventions between the city’s hotels and over the bridge to the trade center on Hutchinson Island.   The City Council passed an enabling Revenue Ordinance to back up the collection of the fee, but it was not a fee that prior City Council's imposed on the city's hotels.

It’s important not to confuse these funds with the new $5.00 per room night that hotels now pay to the State of Georgia, as part of 2015 Statewide Transportation bill,  HB 170, that added a flat $5.00 a night fee to all hotel’s with more than five rooms, aimed at raising funds going to statewide transportation projects.  Those funds are administered by the State.

When SaMMI was created, the initial ‘POR’ per occupied room started at $.35 cents a night onto the hotel bill, but then quickly was raised to $1.00 by the hotel stakeholders, the rate that has been used for over 10 years. 

 

And, SaMMI began with the city’s 13 largest hotels joining together who all voted amongst themselves to create a fund to pay for convention transportation due to the city’s convention center being built across the river.

The money collected is divided between the DOT shuttle; the ferry system; and a Convention Transportation Fund that any convention group that meets certain criteria can apply to, to receive money to offset their needed buses and shuttles to get attendees from the Trade Center and between hotels.

The Westin pays $2.50 a night, more than double the POR of other hotels, because their guests need much more in the way of access to the city for restaurants and other entertainment venues.  The CVB, under the leadership of Joe Marinelli, oversees approval and disbursement of the Convention Transportation Fund portion.

And, in the beginning, 10% of the money went to a fund to help fund festivals that would theoretically increase occupancy, to benefit all hotels, as the city was working to build its tourism numbers.   

All of the city’s hotels with over 25 rooms in what is termed the ‘convention district’ now participate in the SaMMI POR.   

But, some of the hotel and tourism leaders interviewed, believe that, at its heart, it was and is a voluntary fee. The City's Revenue Ordinance simply created the legal vehicle for the City to collect.  They point to the fact that the money is then given to SaMMI, which has the legal responsibility for its distribution. 

The Bylaws of SaMMI spell out how the board is to be constituted, as well.

Several years ago, members of the SaMMI executive board – there is some level of disagreement on who approved what - voted that SaMMI would partner with Chatham Area Transit on services, even though “our visitors don’t use CAT services, and never really have,” says one of Savannah’s top tourism leaders.    

And, there have been ‘issues’ with the DOT shuttle, which some believe “has a clientele, including a lot of homeless riders, that turned off tourists,” states another. 

There are those who argue,also, that it’s really the city and the county’s responsibility to build a public transportation system that insures employees can get to work – not the job of the tourism industry – particularly when the city approves building permits and issues business licenses, and is glad to tax the heck out of everyone, but doesn’t have a plan for where employees are supposed to park.

Hernandez and the City Council can decide to end their contract with SaMMI, but they also risk that hotels will be unwilling to charge the POR of $1.00 that is helping support the tourism jobs, property taxes and sales tax dollars that fund the city government.

The current SaMMI board members are:  Jody McIntyre, Chair, Director of Sales and Marketing, Savannah Marriott Riverfront; Robert Coffey, Consultant, Savannah International Trade & Convention Center; Charlie Brazil, General Manager, Old Town Trolley Tours; Chris Crane, Vice Chair,General Manager at Embassy Suites Savannah; Mark Dana, Vice President, Prince Bush Smith Hotels; Marc Friday, Immediate Past Chair, General Manager, Planters Inn; Bill Hubbard, President & CEO, Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce; Joe Marinelli, President, Visit Savannah; Kellie Linder, Secretary-Treasurer, General Manager, Hotel Indigo; Veleeta McDonald; Director of Parking and Mobility Services, City of Savannah; Curtis Koleber, Chief Executive Office.

The City is apparently retaining the money, cutting out the SaMMI board process, and ignoring the history of cooperative efforts by the city's hotels to address needed transportation problems.  

It’s clear that before this issue goes any further, and the City keeps operating in a vacuum about the needs of ALL  downtown businesses and their employees trying to get to work, the SaMMI Board needs to meet, adhere to its Bylaws, decide on their future, and issue a full report to all its member hotels. 

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